Ann Napolitano has crafted a compelling novel in the style of Southern Gothic, incorporating author Flannery O’Connor and her mother Regina into fictional situations with a cast of unforgettable characters.
Young and beautiful Cookie Himmel is the quintessential Southern belle. During a disastrous New York experiment, she meets rich and handsome Melvin Whiteson who follows her back to Milledgeville. Determined to start anew in his wife’s hometown, Melvin finds himself “making tiny adjustments to his demeanor, his expression, and even his accent, in order to fit in.” He could drop these pretenses only during his visits with Flannery O’Connor.
Compliant Lona Waters treasures her holy hour each afternoon, a time when she doesn’t have to worry about making enough money to pay the bills or be a satisfactory wife to her ambitious husband. All this changes when good friend and neighbor Miss Mary asks Lona to take on her troubled adolescent son as her assistant.
Gigi, Lona’s daughter, figures more prominently toward the end of the novel. Having spent most of her life with her beloved Miss Mary, Gigi’s life is turned upside down by a series of disastrous events that culminate in violence. Several descriptions of the adolescent appear throughout the novel, the most poignant being: “She was laden down and shaking…She looked liked the loneliest child in the universe.”
But the most intriguing characters are the peacocks, those infuriating birds that “do what they want, when they want.” Flannery’s flock of peacocks make their presence felt at all momentous occasions in the sleepy Georgia town.
The novel opens with a cacophony of noise that keeps the entire town awake on the eve of Cookie’s wedding: “The peacocks tilted their head back and bellowed and hollered their desires into the night. They snapped their shimmering tails open and shut like fans. Behind each male’s pointy head, a green-bronze arch unfurled, covered with a halo of gazing suns. The females brayed and shook their less-attractive tails in return.”
At the crack of a pistol on an otherwise peaceful afternoon, the peacocks join forces with all the other animals to create hell on earth: “The chaos seemed eternal. The peacocks were screaming to break eardrums. The chickens were beating the air with wings that couldn’t fly. Other birds flew in jagged circles. They descended on the porch like nails drawn to a magnet.”
Divided into three parts—Good, Hard, Look—this beautifully written novel exposes the artifices and veils that are often used to shield uncomfortable realities. But Ann Napolitano does not end the novel on a tragic or unsettled note. Instead, we see glimmers of hope and redemption as the characters pick up the shards of their shattered lives.